SHILDON is not renowned for its glamour or for its exotic luxury. If it has fame, it is for being the cradle of the railways, the crib of heavy industry, so if it were to be associated with an item of clothing, it would surely be the miner's overall or the railwayman's donkey jacket, made dirty through the sweat of years of honest labouring.

Yet until 30 years ago, Shildon was famed throughout the Eastern Bloc for producing the finest, most luxurious, fur coats. Whenever a Communist was cold, he reached for his Shildon fake fur coat, made from "bri-nylon furleen", and promoted by Lionel Blair, the king of camp.

The company started as Alfred Morris Furs, in London, in 1898 - a traditional family-run furriers, making garments out of real animal pelts.

In 1939, it was blitzed out of Chiswell Street (near Moorgate tube station), and the Morris family re-established themselves in Buckinghamshire manufacturing aircraft parts for the war effort.

As the war neared its end, the sons of the founder, Alfred and Harry, decided to return to the rag trade as it was all they knew, and produce utility coats made out of Beaver Lamb - a chemical alternative to natural fur.

In November 1944, the Board of Trade offered the company a grant to relocate to a "distressed" area of County Durham, and so it pitched up in the old colliery institute dance hall in Eldon, County Durham, employing three people.

Beaver Lamb coats took off, and within five years, Alfred Morris was employing 200 people at its Blyvoor Works on top of the old Dabble Duck Colliery in Shildon.

Then came the company's really big break. In 1950, the Canadian Defence Research Board, in a bid to save its fast-vanishing reindeer, developed a synthetic alternative to caribou skin. The Shildon firm took up the worldwide licence to market this fake material.

A glitzy new name for the company was needed, and Alfred Morris chose Astraka. Astrakhan is the name given to the finest Persian wool, made from the tightly curled fleece of an unborn lamb - appallingly, both lamb and mother had to be killed to get at this soft fur.

MrMorris clearly felt his synthetic Astraka made in Shildon was as good as the real Astrakhan from Iran - and certainly nowhere near as unkind.

But this was the age of nylon. As well as manufacturing furleen coats, a spin off company was formed in the early 1960s to manufacture half-a-million square feet of bri-nylon carpet in 22 different colours a year. It was called the Shildon Carpet Company and the Shildon Nylon Carpet Centre was opened in Berners Street, off Oxford Street, in the heart of London's fashionable shopping district, where scantily-clad Tiller Girls frolicked in their stilettos to show the indestructibility of the new flooring.

This was also the age of the mini-skirted teenager, and Shildon's fake fur coats, at £6 each, were within the range of those going to scream and shout at a Beatles concert.

Astraka faux fur was available in Harrods, Selfridges, Fenwicks and Binns; even Twiggy stepped out in a garment made in Shildon.

With its design expertise growing, Astraka continued to work with real furs, imported from China and Tibet.

When The Northern Echo's fashion editor reviewed the Astraka range of 1964, her favourite was a 30 guinea fluffy white poodle-like eskimo coat made of real Mongolian lamb.

"Other jackets," she wrote, "are made from the 'paws' of Chinese lambs, which are sewn by Chinese prisoners, I am told." Today, we would find lots of ethical issues that weren't thought of in the 1960s.

Another enormous market for the Shildon company was behind the Iron Curtain.

In April 1961, Sydney Rosenberg, the new chief executive of Astraka, told the Echo: "The whole of the Bolshoi Ballet, when they were over in this country, took fur coats made from nylon back with them. Last year we sold £60,000-worth to Russia."

As the 1960s wore on, the carpet side of the business seems to have faded away, but the clothing export market boomed.

In September 1970, Astraka extended the Blyvoor Works, creating 80 jobs, taking its total workforce to more than 600. It was the largest employer in Shildon outside British Rail; it was the largest employer in Shildon of women full stop. It was Britain's largest fake fur producer; it had customers in 37 countries. Fake leopard and fake rabbit were the hot lines of 1971; so many were selling in the Middle East that there was speculation that the sheiks weren't just buying them for their wives but they were kitting out their whole harems.

To boost sales further, in 1975 the Astraka Roadshow was formed, headed by Lionel Blair, and it toured stores showing offthe new, exotic Astraka Wildlife Collection.

For one afternoon only in September 1975, Blair and his dancing girls performed in the canteen in Shildon.

Amazingly, The Northern Echo didn't send a photographer to capture the moment, but a writer described it well, if a little patronisingly: "The dancers all had shining, well cut, blonde hair, immaculate make-up and toothpaste smiles,” said the Echo. “Before them swam a sea of Shildon ladies, of overalls and homemade perms.

"The comparison was startling.

"There is no doubt about it - Mr Blair's sophisticated velvet touch went down a bomb with the girls. Some looked up longingly into his eyes, others could hardly control themselves for giggling. . .

"An hour later, it was all over and time to get back to work.

"Perhaps some spent the afternoon day-dreaming about the bright lights, the sophisticated veneer, the tinselled glitter and then they went home to get Dad and the kids their sausage and pease pudding."

It must have worked, for in 1977 Astraka won a £300,000 order from Russia - its largest ever - for 9,000 fake mink and red fox coats. The whole Iron Curtainmust have been fur-lined, because there were lucrative markets in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany as well.

At the start of the 1980s, Astraka began to slim down its workforce, but it should still have been a good time to be in the fake fur business. People's attitude to animals was changing: in December 1985, when Binns, in Darlington, opened a Edelson's fur concession, High Row was picketed by the South Durham Animal Rights Group. With similar demonstrations taking place across the country, Astraka's managing director Clive Morris - probably the third generation of Morris men at the company's helm - announced 80 jobs and a fourhour twilight shift to extend the working day to meet the increased demand.

But it wasn't really a good time to be in the fake fur business.

Overseas competition was destroying the County Durham textile industry, and the eastern Europeans were discovering that they could make fake fur cheaper than Shildon.

A series of mild winters in the UK was blamed for cutting the home market, but - partly as a result of the animal rights protests - fashions were changing. People no longer wanted to drape fake dead animals across their shoulders.

Astraka tried to diversify into waxed cotton jackets, but when it finished its last big Russian contract, it slipped into receivership in February 1988, jeopardising the remaining 270 jobs.

With the receivers unable to find a buyer, the factory closed on May 11, 1988 - 25 years ago this month.

It was a severe blow to the Shildon economy which had yet to recover from the closure of the wagon works - where most of the Astraka women's husbands had worked - in 1984.

A sale of assets at the factory in June 1988 realised £150,000 to pay offmost of the company's creditors, and at a council meeting on July 14, 1988, Sedgefield District Council revealed it was now the largest creditor, owed £54,418 in rates.

London, Paris, Milan but no longer in Shildon; this fascinating part of the world fashion industry had gone from riches to rags.